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THE VEGETARIAN (Hogarth, $21) is the first — there will be more, let’s hope — of Han Kang’s novels to arrive in the United States. Published in South Korea in 2007, the story concerns a young woman named Yeong-hye, who renounces meat for an all-plant diet and ends by resolving to become a plant herself. The style is realistic and psychological, and denies us the comfort that might be wrung from a fairy tale or a myth of metamorphosis. We all like to read about girls swapping their fish tails for legs or their unwrinkled arms for branches, but — at the risk of stating the obvious — a person cannot become a potted bit of green foodstuff. That Yeong-hye seems not to know this makes her dangerous, and doomed.

“In Their Purse Pockets” © Molly Lamb. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art, New York City

“In Their Purse Pockets” © Molly Lamb. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art, New York City

Then again, people have always hated what they don’t understand. Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, a mediocre, conventional businessman who narrates the first section of the novel, is angry at his wife’s sudden display of will, and baffled by her explanation — “I had a dream” is all she’ll say, as stubborn and withholding as Bartleby. Unlike the scrivener’s, Yeong-hye’s refusal is assigned a clear motive: her father is an abusive tyrant who whipped her as a child, and who rallies the family to violently force-feed her a piece of pork. The presence of these mean, uncomprehending men in Yeong-hye’s life is a predictable narrative convenience, and a little disappointing, like a common blight on a rare flower. But one lesson of The Vegetarian is that a female complaint is no less urgent for being banal. The most familiar of stories can mutate, and grow strange tendrils.

In the first section of the novel, Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat raises the wrath of her father and the anxiety of her mother and her sister, In-hye. The second section occurs two years later, and is narrated by In-hye’s husband, an unnamed video artist who is obsessed with a bluish birthmark on Yeong-hye’s butt. This “Mongolian mark” is the seed of tormenting fantasies. He is plagued by thoughts of “throwing her down, rough enough to make all the people in the restaurant scream if they could see it,” and also of painting her skin with bright petals and filming her, as if she were flowering, while they fornicate. When he finally sees Yeong-hye’s skinny, childlike body naked — she’s barely eating anymore — he is surprised to discover that the birthmark is “more vegetal than sexual.”

As far as Yeong-hye is concerned, the vegetal is sexual. Her brother-in-law asks her to pantomime coitus with his friend, who is similarly painted, and she’s happy to oblige. “I’ve never wanted it so much before,” she explains. “It was the flowers on his body . . . I couldn’t help myself.” Her weirded-out co-star heads for the door, so her brother-in-law takes his place. This represents a new direction in his corpus. A former radical and a veteran of the pro-democracy Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, his earlier work had been, in the words of an ex-girlfriend, “so engagé, almost as though you were atoning for surviving the May massacre.” Yeong-hye’s anorexic body is post-political, otherworldly. She seems sacred: “Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ‘person,’ but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either — more like a mysterious being with qualities of both.”

The third and final section is narrated by In-hye, and takes place the following year, after she has committed her sister to a psychiatric hospital. Yeong-hye resists medical intervention. She accepts only water and sunlight, attempting like some deranged god to photosynthesize, and spends hours standing on her head in the hope that her arms will embed in the ground, like roots. Meanwhile, a depressed In-hye contemplates hanging herself from a tree. Yeong-hye’s desire has become a weed, strangling and rotting whatever it touches. When In-hye desperately screams at her sister to eat, Yeong-hye does not recognize her fear. “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?” she asks.

The hunger artist becomes artist’s model becomes hunger striker. But what are Yeong-hye’s demands? Han has said that The Vegetarian was inspired by a line from the Korean poet Yi Sang, who lived during the Japanese occupation: “I believe that humans should be plants.” Plants, unlike humans, do not commit acts of war, and Han’s book shows a deep, if ambivalent, sympathy for Yeong-hye’s choice to withdraw from the human rather than be implicated in a world of destruction. Perhaps Han intends for Yeong-hye to stand in for an ungendered, universal body. If so, it’s a hard sell. We don’t live in a world where a hungry woman is a neutral signifier.

Women speak through the body because that’s how they are heard. It’s true, of course, that female bodies have historically been excluded from the public sphere. It’s also true that women become public by making their bodies public — and when that happens, it’s usually on the market’s terms. The world loves female bodies — loves them suffering, starving, pregnant, orgasmic, assaulted, dead. Female bodies are surveilled and broadcast and picked apart; they sell magazines and cable dramas. What our world still cannot stomach is a female mind. Consider the novel’s first sentence, spoken by Mr. Cheong: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

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